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Michel Foucault

General Introductions: 

Discourse, Power, Subjectivity
His Views of History  (Chinese) 
Sarup. "Foucoult and the Social Sciences" 
An Outline by  Wanli Liu 
Hall.  "The Work of Representation." --
An Outline by   Allison Lin 

Article Outlines: 
"What is an Author?"
--An Outline by Sophia Hsu

Relevant Links

What is an Author?
--not a creator of, but a label on a group of statements
Golconda, 1953, 80,7x100,6 cm, oil Rene Margritte site
under construction 11/28/1998

Discourse, Power, Subjectivity

  Unless otherwise noted, the following information is excerpted from "The Work of Representation."
Representation: Cultural Representations and Signifying Practices.  Ed. Stuart Hall.  London: Sage, 1997.


Power, Knowledge & Subjectivity


Discourse (Representation p. 44-)
  • as a system of representation-- "What interested him were the rules and practices that produced meaningful statements and regulated discourse in different historical periods."

  • about language and practice--Discourse is "a group of statements which provide a language for talking about ...a particular topic at a particular historical moment."  "Discourse, Foucault argues, constructs the topic.  It defines and produces the objects of our knowledge.  It governs the way that a topic can be meaningfully talked about and reasoned about.

  • [e.g. hysteria, sexuality, homosexuality, Romantic love in late 19th century.]
  • nothing which is meaningful exists outside discourse--"nothing has any meaning outside of discourse"
the study of the discourses [of madness, punishment, sexuality, or Romantic love, etc.]  must include the following elements:
  1. statements about 'madness' ...
  2. the rules which prescribe certain ways of talking about these topics and exclude others (rules of inclusion and exclusion)
  3. 'subject' who in some ways personify the discourse--the madman, the hysterical woman, the Romantic hero, etc.
  4. how this knowledge about the topic acquires authority, a sense of embodying the 'truth' about it...
  5. practices within institution for dealing with the subjects--medical treatments for the insane, punishment regimes for the guilty, ways of reading Romantic poetry, night walk for Romantic poets, admiration of Romantic hero, etc.
  6. discursive formation--the emergence of a new discourse, decline of the old one

  7. --history as discontinuous, with ruptures, radical breaks

Discourse--knowledge--power  (e.g. knowledge about sex)
--knowledge linked to power, not only assumes the authority of 'the truth' but has the power to make itself true.
--not the 'Truth" of knowledge in the absolute sense--...but of a discursive formation sustaining a regime of truth.
--power circulates: It is never monopolized by one centre.  It 'is deployed and exercised through a net-like organization.'
--power is not only negative; it is also productive.  "it traverses and produces things, it induces pleasure, forms of knowledge, produces discourses." (Representation 49-50)

Power and Subjectivity
Discourses themselves [are] the bearers of various subject-positions: that is, soecific positions of agency and identity in relation to particular forms of knowledge and practice.
subject--produced within discourse, subjected to discourse.
subject position--[for us to become the subject of a particular discourse,  and thus the bearers of its power/knowledge] we must locate ourselves in the position from which hte discourse makes most sense, and thus become its 'subjects' by subjecting' ourselves to its meanings, power and regulation.

Example 1--hysteria, disease or performance?

Andre Brouillet, A clinical lesson at La Salpetriere (given by Charcot), 1887
(Representation 52-53) This painting represents a regular feature of Charcot's treatment regime, where hysterical female patients displayed before an audience of medical staff and students the symptoms of their malady, ending often  with a full hysterical seizure. 
This painting could be said to capture and represent, visually, a discursive 'event'--the emergence of a new regime of knowledge. 


portrait of Augustine:  Amorous supplication  "Among the most frequently photographed was a fifteen-year-old girl named Augustine, who had entered the hospital in 1875.  Her hysterical attacks had begun at the age of thirteen when, according to her testimony, she had been raped by her employer, a man who was also her mother's lover.  Intelligent, coquetish, and eager to please, Augustine was an apt pupil of the atelier.  All of her poses suggest the exaggerated gestures of the French classical acting style, or stills from silent movies.  ...also seem to imitate poses in 19th-century paintings [e.g. Ophelia, or Beata Beatrice] (Showalter in Representation 73-74)

 portrait of Augustine: Ecstasy

  • Example 2--subject positions in Las Meninas (pp. 58-61)

    1. "Foucault reads the painting in terms of representation and the subject" (Dreyfus and Rabinow, 1982, p. 20).   . . . the painting tells us something about how representation and the subject work.
    2. The meaning of the picture is produced, Foucault argues, through this complex inter-play between presence (what you see, the visible) and absence (what you can't see, what has displaced it within the frame).
    3. Two centers -- the Infanta and Royal Couple. Far from being finally resolved into some absoluate truth which is the meaning of the picture, the discourse of the painting quite deliberately keeps us in this state of suspended attention.
    4. Our look -- our identification with one subject position  For the painting to work, the spectator. . . must subject him/herself to the painting's discourse and, in this way, become the painting's ideal viewer.
    5. Three subject positions.

From another book:
  • Example 3--study of images
  1. Foucault's arguments about discursive formations--we should not focus on one or two privileged images, but grasp the regularities which linked the different manifestations of a certain imagery together across different sites of representation.
  2. Foucault's arguments about discursive specificity--we need to attentive to the specific discursive codes and conventions through which ...is signified ...
  3. Foucault's insistence on the operation of power through discursive regimes-- opens up the possibility of analyzing the power relations which function in the construction of these images.
  4. Foucault's emphasis on the institutional dimension of discourses -- how the images were rooted within specific institutional practices ...
  5. Foucault's contention about the discursive production of subjectivity-- a set of images as a new subject position opened up ...

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